What Do You Practice?

That was my question to the room of 7th and 8th graders.

I got the expected answers: hockey, piano, skiing, French, multiplication tables, juggling, lines in a play. Then, without me even have to nudge them, they started going deeper. Good manners. Patience. Tolerance.

The plan was to teach this group of kids about spiritual practices. It’s difficult topic for adults to get their heads wrapped around. I figured it would be even harder for a group of kids that would rather be playing foosball. But – and if you have ever watched a sappy movie you know where this paragraph is going – they ended up teaching me more.

Well, maybe it would be more accurate to say they helped me discover new ways to think and talk about the Art of Practice.

Why do we practice?

We practice to get better, certainly. But let’s break that down. Practice is different than knowing. You can read all about the mechanics of a great jump shot, but you have to get the feel. You have to know how to push off just now, how to release the wrist just so. No one can do that for you. You have to own the process and make it yours. You can read about writer’s block all you want, but until you know what it feels like to sit at a desk and push through it or how to tell when to walk away for a while, you haven’t learned anything.

Practice also builds muscle memory. It makes things automatic. In the middle of it – a game, a big project, a performance, a crisis – we don’t have the time to dither. We need act. We need to trust ourselves. We need know what to do, yes, but we need to what it feels like to do it. Most importantly, we need to have done it wrong so many times we know when we are doing it wrong and how to fix things on the fly.

Practice isn’t about the head, it’s about the body.

What is it like to practice?

You want honesty, talk to junior highers. Practice can be fun, but it can also be tedious and hard. It cuts into other things we’d rather be doing (another round of season one of Archer, anyone?). It takes time and commitment. It can be embarrassing; one wants to be the one who consistently has the worse time or hits the wrong notes.

And frankly, sometimes it seems pointless. We may be improving our skills as we practice, but we don’t often see that improvement during practice.

What’s it like when we don’t practice?

Every kid had a story to share about how they had skipped a few practices and immediately noticed how much worse they had gotten. It takes time to get back into the swing and to remind our muscles of what they once knew how to do.

Taking a break is part of any practice regime. But when we go too long without running or writing or praying or doing scales or reviewing the flashcards and it’s hard to start again. And then it becomes easier to listen to all the voices telling you to stop.

How do we fail at practice?

The only way to fail, one of my early mediation teachers told me, is to not show up. Some practices go great and seem to fly by. Others are full of stumbles and mistakes and tears. Both kinds are successful. The only bad practice is a skipped practice.

How do we succeed at practice?

In addition to showing up physically, we need to show up emotionally. We need to be humble enough to learn, if only from ourselves.  We need to be brave enough to fail, even in private. We need to trust ourselves enough to listen to our bodies and our hearts. We need to be honest enough to admit we need the practice.

We need to be present to the practice. Our focus needs to be on this move, this sentence, this passage, this breath. We have to be deaf to the imagined roar of the crowds, opinions of the critics and any future gain and loss. The practice is about the practice.

What do you practice?

That’s my question to you.

And to myself, for that matter. Prayer. Writing. Yoga. Forgiveness. These are all things I wish I did better. But better won’t come through reading inspirational books or following the right blogger. Better only comes with more often. When we practice forgiving the little things on a daily basis, it is easier to forgive the big things when they happen. When I write every day – who knew! – it’s easier to write every day. Practice isn’t about knowledge or thinking or figuring out. It’s about pen to paper, feet on the mat or ass in class, as I used to tell my teenager.

So, what do you want to practice?

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